Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
It's natural to compare. Thus, I find myself assessing the situation of the UK against that of my adopted home in Hong Kong. Reading the press in both places, you'd assume a constant crisis. As is often the case, once you move away from the media-hype, the truth is more prosaic. Except is it?
Both places are in a post-colonial period. Although, coming at the process from different ends. Hong Kong is striding ahead. Its parasite economy feeding with relish off China's surging emergence as a world player. A third runway, a bridge across the Pearl River estuary, a high-speed rail link.
That’s not to ignore issues that dog the fragrant harbour. A growing wealth-gap, stagnant social-mobility and pollution top the list. Yet, Hong Kong continues to move forward. Taxation remains low, as does the crime rate. Jobs abound.
The same can’t be said for the UK. The decline that began with the Suez crisis may be gathering pace. Bad decision after bad decision, as signs of post-colonial decay abound. On all fronts of national life, one imbroglio after another is unfolding with embarrassing frequency. Peter Hitchen’s identified the trend some years ago in his “Abolition of Britain”. His account charted the course from self-confidence to self-denigration. That process rumbles on.
Even with rose-tinted glasses, its impossible not to see that institutions are failing. This manifests itself in a sad litany of floundering public services. Some sacrificed to the exigencies of the market, others because of willful blindness. Cue the Jimmy Saville scandal et al, and the awful rape of girls by gangs. All ignored by the police.
For the past three weeks, the railway system came close to complete collapse. Northern Rail has cancelled or delayed 43% of trains. The Lake District, a favoured holiday destination, currently has no train service. Hotels, campsites, restaurants are all feeling the impact. Thameslink services in the south-east are so intermittent the public never knows if a journey is possible. Left stranded late at night, people sleep in the office or seek hotel rooms. Meanwhile, rail bosses are receiving honours from the Queen on top of record salary payouts.
Much of the blame rests with the government. It's pushed a relentless program of outsourcing, intended to drive down costs. In the process, it also drove down accountability and coordination of projects. Delays in the electrification of lines and a lack of trained drivers gets the blame. Underlying this is serious management shortcomings. Despite all the fancy MBAs and technology, coordination of a national time-table appears beyond them.
Take one example. £858 million spent on electrifying the line between Glasgow and Edinburgh cut six minutes from the journey. Yet, the same trip was nine minutes shorter 40 years ago under British Rail. Currently, Thameslink is cancelling 230 trains a day, and Northern 165. Then you've got the delays. Meanwhile, trains that do run are dirty, with shoddy rolling stock. Anyone who has visited Japan would hang their head in shame. So much for outsourcing and public-private initiatives promising better outcomes.
At the same time, the NHS is in a permanent state of crisis. In the latest reversal of policy, recruitment of foreign nurses and doctors is back on. Of course, it’s overlooked that the NHS always relied on overseas professionals.
Passing through Portsmouth last week, I spotted an abundance of expensive navy ships idle at the dockside. The backbone of the fleet, six Type 45 destroyers, costing £1 billion each, are unable to take to sea. Various explanations exist: a lack of crews and engine problems top the list.
With engines able to deal with the cold waters of the North Sea, we are well-covered in that environment. But, the warmer waters of the Middle East cause a shut-down with total system failure. Nobody thought to tell the manufactures that the Navy may need to operate in warm waters. An engine refit will start in 2020.
HMS Dauntless and HMS Defender haven’t put to sea since 2016. The others undertake short missions in suitable waters. Joining these ships is the Navy's pride and joy. The carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth sits passive without any planes. She requires the protection of Type 45’s, otherwise she’d be a sitting duck in a conflict. No worry. She’s unlikely to be ready for service anytime soon. Delays stretch her time at berth. Since commissioning in late 2017, Big Lizzie spent only six weeks at sea.
Those looking after the less fortunate in British society are also faltering. A so-called “universal credit scheme” introduced in 2013 unified a variety of social benefits. The scheme, designed to save money, has proven costly in both financial and human terms. Heralded as a cheaper alternative, the National Audit Office revealed this week it's more expensive. Besides, those in need are not getting their payments. Stories abound of disabled folks, including ex-soldiers, left without money.
In normal times this shambles would be the focus of Parliament. But these are not normal times. Distracted by Brexit, the political class engages in an endless round of bickering. Internecine warfare is raging through both the Labour and the Conservatives parties. Brexiters and Remainers are at each other throats, in endless circular arguments.
The legal disputes associated with Brexit are head-crackingly complicated. Thus ordinary folks disengage or roll-over in boredom. Few people outside the Parliament bubble can explain what's going on, and those in Parliament are too busy beating each other up.
None of this is encouraging because such significant issues are at stake. I suspect that many who voted out of the EU may take a different decision now. Sold as a straightforward issue, Brexit is far from that. Untangling decades of legislation is proving a massive struggle. And that's before you get to issues of the Irish border, security cooperation and policing. The list goes on.
This week Scottish independence got thrown into the mix. Remember the Scots voted 62% to 38% against Brexit. Thus, the Scots nationalists played their cards to make it clear they want a say in the negotiations. Like Nessie rising from Loch Ness, the great scaly monster of national abolition is revealed in all its ugly menace.
I’m baffled how such a country can attain the best Brexit deal. It can’t organise its defences, health-care or public transport system. Theresa May is fighting battles on all fronts, without much to show for it. She is close to being removed by her own party, while only Labour’s disarray prevents a serious challenge from that side.
The impression is of chaotic EU negotiations. You have to be sceptical the outcome will be favourable. The road ahead looks rocky. As a mood of resignation hangs over the UK, Hong Kong looks like the better bet at the moment.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.